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From the World War I Centennial News Podcast

Education: Toolkits for WWI Educators with Dr. Jennifer Zoebelein

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In June 7th's edition of the World War I Centennial News Podcast, Episode 126, host Theo Mayer interviewed historian Dr. Jennifer Zoebelein from the National World War I Museum and Memorial. Continue reading to learn more about her new project creating WWI-focused Toolkits for educators. The following is a transcript of the conversation, lightly edited for clarity: 

Theo Mayer: Each year nearly three thousand students with their families and teachers gather at the University of Maryland College Park for a week-long event. It's the finals of National History Day. In 2019, the finals are running from June 9 to June 13 as these enthusiastic groups gather from all 50 United States, Washington DC, Guam, American Samoa, Puerto Rico; and international schools in China, Korea, and South Asia. Last year the US World War I Centennial Commission brought together an education partnership or consortium that includes the Commission, National History Day, the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Our next two guests are part of that initiative, as we're first joined by Dr. Jennifer Zoebelein, who's a special projects historian at the National World War I Museum and Memorial, and recently took on directing a Commission project to create a series of World War I focused Educators' Toolkits generally sponsored by the Andrew Mellon Foundation. Then, we're also going to speak with Ron Nash, who's a senior education fellow at the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, to explore their part in the education initiative, but first, Dr. Zoebelein. Jennifer, welcome to the podcast.

Dr. Jennifer Z.: Thank you, Theo, thank you for having me.

jennifer zoebeleinDr. Jennifer ZoebeleinTheo Mayer: Jennifer, let me start with a moment of reflecting on your career and your work. Now, you've done some really interesting project with the museum with the National Parks Service, with the New York Historical Society. What inspired you to become so involved with history and what are some of your favorite projects that you've done?

Dr. Jennifer Z.: I was very fortunate growing up as a junior high and high school student to have really great history teachers, and I really credit them with making me the historian that I am today. They just instilled in me a passion for history and enthusiasm for history, and I've always carried that forward with me regardless of the subject matter. I truly enjoy sharing that history with people, with the public, with students, with an array of audiences. Probably my favorite project that I've ever worked on was while I was with the National Park Service at Fort Sumter in Charleston. I was very fortunate to be there during the sesquicentennial of the firing on Fort Sumter in 2011. To be part of something like that, to be at a site like that exactly 150 years after that momentous event was truly something wonderful. I don't know that I'll ever be able to repeat something like that throughout the rest of my career.

Theo Mayer: That's great. Bringing history to life.

Dr. Jennifer Z.: Yes, absolutely. It's very important and it makes it relevant for people today.

Theo Mayer: You know, Jennifer, a lot of people who actually go over to France and go visit the locations there say the same thing, there's something that happens and it has to do with just being there.

Dr. Jennifer Z.: Absolutely, absolutely.

Theo Mayer: Well, let's talk about the World War I Educator Toolkits. What's the concept and what is the program look like?

Dr. Jennifer Z.: The goal here is to create a series of toolkits, a series of topics that address various social issues related to World War I. These range from influenza to immigrants and immigration to looking at women and African American participation in the war. The idea here is to create a resource for educators and for their students, drawing on both existing resources and resources that are yet to come and to create something that is truly fantastic and that can really continue this knowledge of World War I as we move past the centennial.

Mellon Found LogoThe Toolkit project is sponsored by the Andrew Mellon FoundationTheo Mayer: Well, clearly one of the strategies and a really smart one is that by educating the educators, the story, this history and the meaning of World War I is going to get perpetuated for a long time. Is that the focus here?

Dr. Jennifer Z.: Yes, absolutely. Our primary focus is for the teachers out there, and this is primarily high school teachers, but it could also be college professors as well. There are plenty of college professors out there who have to teach surveys and are not necessarily an expert in World War I. The resources that we provide will help them help their students to really gain a better understanding of this conflict, why it was so important, the issues that it raised, what this meant for American society and what this meant for the United States in the early 20th century.

Theo Mayer: Well, you know, we stopped calling it the Forgotten War and we stopped calling it the Great War. We started calling it the War That Change the World. It's really true.

Dr. Jennifer Z.: Absolutely, and that's something that really needs to be pushed because, I think especially in the United States, they don't realize that importance, they don't realize how much weight this war carries.

Theo Mayer: You're testing your first efforts in this initiative at National History Day this next week. Why there?

Dr. Jennifer Z.: We were very fortunate in some of the earliest conversations we had with National History Day regarding what they could bring to the table, their resources. Obviously, they create great educational activities for teachers and for students. We were granted the opportunity to present this material at one of their workshops that they are hosting next week. We're going to be testing our first Toolkit, Women in World War I. We'll be showing our video that we have for that toolkit; possibly if there's time, getting them to listen to part of the podcast, showing some of the educational activities that we've produced, and just overall getting feedback on what we've produced so far- does that work, is this what teachers are looking for and if not, what can we do better, how we can we make it better as we work through the rest of the Toolkit project.

Theo Mayer: Well, asking the users is really smart, so that makes a great deal of sense.

Dr. Jennifer Z.: Yes, exactly, exactly.

yeomanetteThe Toolkits focus on different aspects of World War I, including the participation of women such as these YeomanTheo Mayer: I know you're still in the early stages of development, but have there been any surprises so far?

Dr. Jennifer Z.: You know, for me, this whole experience is a new experience for me. I've never directed a project like this before, so perhaps the best way to answer that is just, rather than saying it's a surprise, more of a learning experience for me, but really having an opportunity to work with some really great people from a lot of great institutions and organizations, to take all these really fantastic resources and put them out there in one place, and just really create something special for teachers.

Theo Mayer: Jennifer, our listeners are obviously interested in both history and in World War I, but a lot of them are really good storytellers in their own right, so with these Toolkits, will they be made available to the public history community as well as to formal educators?

Dr. Jennifer Z.: Absolutely. The Toolkits are going to live, for lack of a better word, on a website. We're going to create a standalone website for this project. Yes, absolutely, this is something that is definitely accessible for the general public, and I hope that people out there are going to use this. Maybe they're not going to look at the educational activities, although parents that homeschool their children, they might be able to use these resources as well. But, I really do hope that this is something that people who are interested or people who had a family member participate in World War I, maybe they want to learn more about women in the war or immigrants in the war. They can kind of look at our videos or look at some of the narratives, find it a great source of information and link them to so many great things that are out there.

Theo Mayer: Any closing thoughts on World War I education and your project?

Dr. Jennifer Z.: I guess the best thing I would say to kind of close this all out would be to remind people that just because the official centennial is coming to an end, does not mean that World War I is going to suddenly disappear under the rug again. Projects like this and other initiatives that are out there are really important. It continues that narrative and it continues to remind people not just in the United States but elsewhere as well just how important World War I is. I think at the end of the day, that's really what we want to drive home.

Theo Mayer: Well, Jennifer, thank you for coming in and giving us a heads up on the program. As you guys progress, are you going to come back and tell us more, please?

Dr. Jennifer Z.: Absolutely. I'd be happy to.

Theo Mayer: Dr. Jennifer Zoebelein is directing a Commission project to create a series of World War I focused Educators' Toolkits. The project website will be coming online soon, and we'll update you with the links as soon as it goes live.



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